By Keith D – Director of F&B Hilton Christiana, aka Forager Extraordinaire
As I begin to write this, I unfortunately realize that this is one of the last mushrooms of the year that I will forage for in 2016. The weather is turning, temperature are dropping, which means the mushrooms will just about all be gone for this year. Only a few poly pores will fruit in the cold, like oyster mushrooms. It also makes me think back to the 2016 mushroom foraging season. It started off fairly well with a wet spring, but quickly dried out in summer under extreme high temperatures and turned into the worst season I have ever had. But as a forager, you have to be optimistic; have to think that in the next hollow you will find the mother lode, or that next week will bring perfect conditions. So I begin the thoughts of what 2017 will bring….
Hen-of-the-woods, Grifola frondosa, or Maitake in Japanese, is a late fall mushroom, usually September and October in my area, and fruit around the base of old oak trees, sometimes in clusters that can grow 20 pounds or more. In fact, the mushroom will bring a slow death to the tree and eventually kill it. They are a Polypore, which are a group of fungi that form fruiting bodies with pores or tubes on the underside, unlike a gilled mushroom, and usually grow on some kind of wood/tree. They are fairly easy it identify, making it a good mushroom to start out with. The Hen-of-the-woods is native of the Eastern United States, as well as Japan, where it is a highly prized mushroom. If you have ever watched the Food Networks Iron Chef, this was one of the special ingredients used is several battles.
Hen-of-the-woods are considered a choice mushroom by foragers, and therefore usually are a closely guarded secret as to where they picked them. The mushroom is known for coming up in the same location at a base of the same tree year after year. I keep a log of dozens of trees to check as the season nears. Never done it before, so no log book? Start by walking in the woods early October that has a good amount of big Oak trees. You actually walk around just about every tree, and especially look for trees that have big dead branches and are starting to die. If on a hill, they usually grow on the downside of the tree since three is more moisture there. You may have to walk 5 miles or more, but eventually should find one. Every year, in late October, I try to find new trees. It is easier later in the season since the mushrooms can get very large and are easy to spot from a distance. Unfortunately, they are usually past prime, where they become tough and woody, so they are not good to eat, this year. But, I will then log it for next year to check earlier in the season.
You can buy Hen-of-the-woods in some specialty stores, but they are almost always not wild but grown with spore plugs inserted into wood. They taste good, but the wild ones just have better and more robust flavor and qualities. They taste delicious, and are wonderful just sautéed in butter or can be used in any recipe that calls for the common button mushroom. They are more flavorful and are hearty, and will keep their shape and not breakdown when cooked for a long period of time.
To see a video on foraging for Hen-of-the-woods
For more pictures of wild and grown Hen-of-the-woods: